Monday, November 22, 2004

Skiing with Ludwig (from 2003)

The comparison of a human life to the seasons of the year is overworked, but the low slanting sun, the growing cold and long nights of late fall and early winter give us the choice to surrender to the dark and cold or rise up and defy it.

It’s easy to slide to a halt, this time of year.

Bill Call is a cyclist in his 60s. He can be seen almost daily, riding to the library or the store or one of his other haunts around town, in all seasons and all weather.

“You get on the machine,” he says. “You tell yourself that whatever else happens that day, you get on the machine.”

Self-propelled transportation takes on a ritualistic quality. The more ancient forms, like Nordic skiing and kayaking, came from primitive cultures or the primitive ages of cultures that evolved, so they held ritual significance because everything in a simple culture holds that kind of significance.

A group of Zen monks on Japan’s Mount Hiei runs as their discipline. Each monk is equipped to commit suicide on the spot if he should ever fail to complete his grueling nightly route. That’s too extreme for most of us, but it illustrates how physical discipline and physical motion through the landscape can take on a spiritual dimension.

Something drives us onward.

Down in the ski shop we hear the sound of someone working out relentlessly on a Nordic Track in the apartment above us. Over the years we have heard many sounds from that living space. Bitter arguments, loud laments, harsh words from spouse to spouse or parent to child. Generally only the louder, more passionate sounds penetrate the floor, but low-frequency vibrations and thin little noises of life come down to us as well. The couple in there now could be described as seniors, just to create a quick image. They’re active, gray-haired people. Along with the indoor training, we often see them headed out to play tennis or to walk during the warm months.

I don’t even know their names, but we hear the sound of their relentless defiance of deterioration, their embrace of physical capability. I don’t even hear music or television, though the volume may simply be too low. To pound away on an indoor machine for as long as we hear it, without any sugar-coating of entertainment, is real discipline.

Simply put, it’s easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. Learn that young and remember it always.

I find that indoor training goes better with music. Over many years I have collected a library of tunes with tempos suited to different kinds of workout.

My all-time favorite Nordic Track piece is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. As far as I’m concerned, old Ludwig doesn’t need to roll over for anybody. I crank up the Seventh until the walls bulge, and hope I survive it.

From a technical standpoint, the symphony also provides a good progression of intensity. It starts out at a good walking pace through the introduction and first movement. The pensive second movement holds the pace fairly low. In the third the music intensifies in preparation for the buoyant rage of the fourth. It is that fourth movement that calls survival into question.

The last movement rises through a series of crescendoes that provide a killer interval workout. You won’t get to warm down until the music stops. The version I have runs 44 minutes or so, and the speeds go from almost too slow at the outset to too fast and too intense at the end. It’s worth chasing, though, like the last two laps of a short-course bike race, all out for the line.

It’s almost better to start the workout feeling slightly depressed. The Seventh isn’t some bouncy, Up With People kind of tune. Written in 1811 when Beethoven was enduring hard times and increasing hearing loss, it has been described as exuberant, but the tune will crush you if you do not rise to meet it. The slow second movement speaks to the lower feelings of life while the third prepares you for the challenge of the fourth. It gives you nothing, but rather demands that you look inside for the strength to listen and to keep up. And that’s what staying in shape is all about.

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